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The Way of the Sage

By Cang Lide (China Daily, 2011-09-25)

Confucius believed that a good education not only benefited the individual, but it would also be for the greater good. Cang Lide argues that the sage's guiding principles to education are still very relevant today.

Confucius would turn in his grave if he knew how many students in China are learning by rote these days. He would get even more upset if he knew that almost all are taught the same way regardless of their different levels of aptitude and attitude. His approach to education was very different two thousand years ago. He had about 3,000 students throughout his lifetime, including 72 whom he considered the most outstanding. Even among this elite group, Confucius took pains to clearly understand individual strengths and weaknesses so he could teach them even better. Among them, Yan Hui was a gentleman of virtue, Zi Lu was full of courage, Zi Gong aspired to go into business and Ran You had political potential. For them, Confucius designed four separate curriculums - Virtue, Language, Administration and Literature - so he could cater to their aptitudes and he nurture their talents accordingly.

One day, Zi Lu had asked in class: "Shall I take action when I've learned the truth?" Confucius replied: " You have your father and elder brother at home so you'd better wait before you rush out." But when Ran You asked the same question a short while later, Confucius told him, "Sure! You must act as soon as you've learned the truth." Gong Xihua, another of his students, was surprised by the conflicting replies and queried him.

The sage explained: "Ran You is weak and timid so I must inspire him to be courageous. But Zi Lu can be foolhardy in his bravery, so I should encourage him to be humble and prudent."

Thus, he tempered courage with prudence, and hesitation with action.

Confucius taught his students that action always spoke louder than words, and he openly showed contempt of those who hid behind declarations of adulation and hypocrisy.

One of his primary principles was "teaching according to each student's ability", and he took pains to understand every one of his students. He would listen carefully to what they say, watch what they do and then decide what to teach them.

He had declared, "I'm not afraid if I am not understood, but I would be very worried if I did not understand others."

In an exchange with Zi Lu, the sage demonstrated his teaching method.

He once asked Zi Lu: "What is your hobby?"

Zi Lu replied: "I love to wield a long sword."

Confucius said: "That is not what I want to know. With your talent as well as your willingness to improve your skills, who else can compete with you?"

Zi Lu, complacent in his confidence, replied: "There is a kind of bamboo in the southern mountains that grows straight without guidance. When sharpened, it can easily penetrate the skin of a rhinoceros. Thus, that with a natural gift needs no polishing."

To this, Confucius patiently replied: "If the arrow's tail is equipped with feathers and its head with even sharper tips, will it not go further and deeper?"

Hearing his words, Zi Lu was chastised and bowed to him, saying: "I benefit much from your teaching."

The sage's students were drawn from all walks of life - the rich and poor, nobles and peasants, urban and rural, irrespective of social or economic status. If he were alive today, he would be upset and disappointed to know that children of migrant workers find it hard to get a place in city schools, or that a student with the proper qualifications may find difficulty gaining entry into a top university because of his countryside origins.

Confucius lived in a period when China was divided and ruled by many states, all vying for dominance with military might.

However, Confucius shunned violence and advocated a different prescription for the "great disorder". The answer, he said, was equal opportunity for all who wanted to be educated and cultivated into gentlemen of virtue and integrity.

He opened his school to all and students flocked to him from the states of Lu, Qi, Jin, Cai, Qin, Chu, Song and Chen, crossing geographical borders and the divide between "civilized" and "barbaric".

He recruited Gongsun Long and Qin Shang from the "barbarian" state of Chu, and Sima Niu and Meng Yi Zi from the aristocracy. Many of his students were children of commoners.

It is the populist education approach that truly epitomizes the spirit of Confucius - "In teaching there should be no distinction of classes."

That many of his students from the poorer backgrounds ended up having brilliant careers is proof of the soundness of his theories.

Yan Hui, the best of his 72 disciples, was once homeless and had wandered the shantytowns of the city. Zhong Gong, whose father was an "untouchable" and lived in a dilapidated hut, later became an administrator under a powerful monarch.

Zeng Can, who became an excellent Confucian scholar, was a pauper who had gone without food for three days and no new clothes for 10 years.

Confucius lived in an era of acute cultural and social crises, but he believed that to save the world, the human mind must first be salvaged. And education was the best channel for that salvation. Throughout his teaching career, Confucius spared no effort in passing on his values.

His Utopia was a place where "a public spirit will rule all under the heaven when the great Way prevails". He cemented the spiritual cornerstone of the most populous, oldest civilization, and his guiding principals in education are still inspiring us today.

"Review the past and know the future", he said. And we should be still trying to achieve the perfect education he so passionately advocated, two thousand years ago.

You can contact the writer at canglide@chinadaily.com.cn.

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